By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – If the Black residents of Ferguson, Mo., want to radically reform the political climate that encouraged police to disproportionately ticket, fine and arrest them to collect revenue for the city coffers, they’ll have to do more than embrace non-violent acts of civil disobedience and peaceful protests – they will have to vote.
In the north St. Louis suburb that is nearly 70 percent Black, five of six city councilmembers are White and the mayor is a White Republican. The police force is almost 95 percent White.
On April 7, voters in Ferguson will go to the polls in a round of highly-anticipated elections for three out of the six of the city council seats.
“We are in the process now of preparing people to go to polls so that we can turn the tide of the council, where the real power lies in Ferguson,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo., adding that four residents who have been actively involved in the protests are running for those three open seats.
The city council selects the city manager, who supervises every department in Ferguson. While Mayor James Knowles brings home $350 a month for serving as mayor of the St. Louis suburb. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Ferguson city manager, John Shaw’s annual salary soared to $120,000 after he was hired in 2007 at $85,000. Shaw resigned shortly after the release of two separate Justice Department reports, one of which painted him as one of the chief architects of a plan that turned the Ferguson police into collection agents for the city.
Getting voters to turn out will be an uphill battle for the activists that have led protests in Ferguson for more than 200 days since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager.
CNN reported that roughly 42 percent of Ferguson voters cast ballots during last November’s midterm elections and that only a few hundred residents had registered to vote between August 11 and October 8.
In 2013, even though Blacks account for nearly 70 percent of the population in Ferguson, Whites made up more than half of the Ferguson electorate, according to voter data analyzed by the Washington Post. Less than 20 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls when Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was elected in 2011.
Blackmon said that low voter turnout in local elections is not unique to Ferguson. Municipal elections are often held separately from national elections and in some jurisdictions party affiliation is left off of the ballot completely. Blackmon said that economic depravity and educational inequality have caused some to turn away from the political process.
Denise Lieberman, an attorney with the Advancement Project who also co-chairs the Don’t Shoot Coalition, a network of more than 50 diverse local organizations that came together in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, said that the epidemics of police violence and voter suppression add to that malaise.
Police investigating the shooting left Brown’s body in the middle of the road for more than four hours, then responded with military-style weapons and gear when residents began to protest. The events were chronicled on social media and transmitted across the world. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson to underscore the Justice Department’s commitment to investigate the shooting and the police response. Activists from Ferguson met with President Barack Obama at the White House.
Following two separate reports from the Justice Department, a slew of resignations including the city manager and the chief of police and the shootings of two police officers, with local elections rapidly approaching, activists say that protests will continue.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor of Christ the King Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo., said that the activists were praying for the police and their families just like they continue to pray for the victims of police violence in the region.
“We must not let the rogue actions of a few derail the positive path that the Department of Justice has placed us on,” said Blackmon. “We will continue to pray with our feet until there is no more blood in the streets.”
After an extensive investigation into the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, the Justice Department released a report that stated, “Under the law, it was not unreasonable for Wilson to perceive that Brown posed a threat of serious physical harm, either to him or to others. When Brown turned around and moved toward Wilson, the applicable law and evidence do not support finding that Wilson was unreasonable in his fear that Brown would once again attempt to harm him and gain control of his gun.”
The report also stated that, “There are no credible witness accounts that state that Brown was clearly attempting to surrender when Wilson shot him,” and that witnesses who said that the teenager was trying to surrender when he was fatally shot, “could not be relied upon in a prosecution because they are irreconcilable with the physical evidence, inconsistent with the credible accounts of other eyewitnesses, inconsistent with the witness’s own prior statements, or in some instances, because the witnesses have acknowledged that their initial accounts were untrue.”
On the same day, the Justice Department also released a searing report that found Ferguson Police Department not only violated First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and federal statutory, law officials routinely urged Thomas Jackson, the police chief, to generate more revenue through law enforcement and disproportionately targeted discriminated African American residents for searches and use of excessive force.
Montague Simmons, the executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, a group founded in 1980 that advocates for a society free of exploitation and oppression, said that the realities exposed in the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson police department are realities that community members have known for a very long time.
“Even with the findings being revealed, we have yet to really see clear action that there is going to be an effective transformation of the way that policing authorities are allowed to operate in our communities,” said Montague. “We’ve seen some resignations, but no real commitment toward change officially coming from Ferguson or the [surrounding] St. Louis County municipalities who are guilty of the same things.”
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou agreed.
Sekou of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Mass., said that the events that occurred in Ferguson follow a familiar pattern of injustice that is happening around the country.
“Throughout the nation Black communities see Ferguson in their own experiences with police,” Sekou. “The resignations and recent shake ups in Ferguson are simply not enough. We need wholesale change.”
Lieberman said that Ferguson groups have had many meetings with members of the Justice Department and other members of the administration about necessary reforms for police departments, local communities and the statehouses.
Lieberman also led a group to Missouri’s statehouse to advocate for legislation that called for greater accountability for police actions and reporting of interactions with residents, greater civilian input and oversight for local police departments.
“This is a movement that is deeply-rooted in principles of nonviolent civil disobedience. And it works,” said Lieberman. “There is no indication that anything would be changing in Ferguson if it weren’t for the people that have taken to the streets for more than 200 days demanding change, forcing government actors to step in.”